De La Torre v. Texas (original by judge slaughter)Annotate this Case
Two officers from the Columbus Police Department responded to a mid-morning call about people suspected of drinking alcohol inside a parked car at the Department of Public Safety driver’s license office. Appellant Lisandro Beltran De La Torre was in the driver's seat, a female in the front passenger seat, and a second female passenger in the back seat. The officers also saw a man standing outside the vehicle on the passenger’s side. That man was asked to sit down nearby, but he was not questioned and later walked away from the scene. One of the officers noticed a small plastic bag containing a powdery substance on the car’s center console while standing at the driver’s door. Appellant and his passengers were asked to step out of the car; officers noticed Appellant smelled of alcohol, had bloodshot eyes, and appeared to have not slept in a day or more. Both officers stated that Appellant had dilated pupils, which they believed based on their training and experience indicated the use of narcotics. The officers removed the bag with the white powdery substance and field tested it. The test yielded a positive result for cocaine. Appellant and the two female passengers were then arrested for possession of a controlled substance. The issue this case presented for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concerned a challenge to the trial court’s jury instructions relating to the car's occupants and their close proximity to the drugs. Appellant contended the court of appeals erred by rejecting his two complaints of jury-charge error by: (1) incorrectly upholding the trial judge’s decision to give a non-statutory instruction on “joint possession,” informing the jury that “two or more people can possess the same controlled substance at the same time;” and (2) by upholding the trial judge’s denial of his request for an instruction on “mere presence,” which would have informed the jury that a person’s mere presence at a location where drugs are found is insufficient to demonstrate possession. The Court of Criminal Appeals determined the proposed instructions would have been improper comments on the weight of the evidence, and should not have been included in the jury charge. "By upholding the trial court’s inclusion of the joint-possession instruction the court of appeals erred, but it was correct to uphold the trial court’s refusal of the mere-presence instruction." Accordingly, judgment was reversed due to error regarding the joint-possession instruction, and the case remanded to the court of appeals for a harm analysis.